Don’t tell cats, but they’re a mere few steps away from ruling the world. Sure, they may look cute, but they run the internet, an estimated 36 million American households own at least one, and your aunt owns 12. Heck, it’s possible there’s one in your home right now, lurking behind you, probing for weaknesses. All they need to overthrow human dominance is, say, a high-tech, military-grade mech suit armed with a variety of weapons. The unholy union of feline and robot will surely be our doom.
Gato Roboto is a game that depicts just such a nightmare scenario. Okay, not really, but it does include both an adorable cat and a mighty robot suit. Developed by Doinksoft, Gato Roboto is a game that wears its Metroid influence on its sleeve. It’s a Mewtroid. A Meowtroid. A Metroidvanya~. The monochrome pixelart may seem distinct on the surface, but all the environments carry more than a whiff of Metroid with its mix of gooey organic surfaces and sterile metal interiors. Slow and atmospheric music sparsely moans in the background as you explore the interconnected world, looking for power-ups. The only real addition to its identity comes from its feline protagonist, Kiki.
So I hope you really like cats and Metroid, because that’s what we’re looking at here.
Gato Roboto (PC, Switch [Reviewed])
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: May 30, 2019
As the premise goes, Kiki and her owner, Gary, are travelling through space on their way to investigate a distress signal originating from an abandoned research facility when Kiki does what a cat does and steps all over the keyboard causing them to crash. Pinned inside the crashed vessel, Gary sends Kiki to perform the investigation in his stead. Unfortunately, in her naked state, Kiki can’t take any damage without violently exploding, so she enlists the aid of a robotic suit that strongly resembles Samus’ iconic Varia Suit, complete with arm-mounted cannon and vision-obstructing shoulder pads.
The biggest difference is that you can step out of your robot suit for a more paws-on approach. Your suit is bulky and water soluble, so you need to strip to your furry flesh tuxedo whenever there’s a crawl space too small to fit into or a pool of water that needs traversing. You’ve also got claws to climb vertical surfaces, which allows you to easily scale to distant ledges. It’s a well-utilized mechanic that forces you out of the relative safety of your suit to bypass various obstacles.
There are a couple alternate vehicles you can take command of aside from your suit, but they feel like a missed opportunity. In all, you’re only given submarines and fixed cannons on a few occasions, and it kind of feels like more could have been done with the mechanic.
The suit is really the main event, and like any good Metroid game, you’re gradually provided with upgrades for it, though unlike Metroid, only a few of them are actually necessary to advance. Health upgrades and palette-changing cartridges are your reward for exploration, but as you advance you’re given access to missiles and spin jumps. There isn’t as much diversity in power-ups that you’d find in a Metroid title, but the game is also substantially shorter and more linear.
Your typical boss battles punctuate the exploration. These are sometimes tricky fights against a recurring foe, each challenging a different subset of your repertoire. There’s standard suit fights, one that has you manning cannons, and another in a submarine. They’re pattern-based fights, forcing you to anticipate attacks and counter them efficiently. I never found these encounters, nor the game in general, very taxing, but I usually did drop a couple of lives on each one. Death is punished by sending you back to the last save point and forcing you to click through the dialogue each time.
If I haven’t made it apparent, Gato Roboto is a pretty by-the-numbers Metroid clone, and that’s what I feel is the game’s biggest letdown. Despite the novelty of playing as an adorable kitty, Gato Roboto doesn’t really develop an identity of its own. The world doesn’t become any more interesting than rocky caves and metal corridors, the music doesn’t become any more fun than the moody humming, and the extra vehicles are extremely limited. Even the story doesn’t really evolve past the mad scientist routine, even if it gives hints that it might.
It ends up feeling a lot like a cheap Metroid clone: a bite-size version of something you might find on Pico-8 or an Arduboy. The humour is limp and without charm and the story lacks any real impact. The atmosphere of isolation that Metroid presents is emulated here, but undermined by Gary’s insistence on frequently nattering in your ear. On the other hand, its rigid adherence to the formula does make for an experience that feels polished.
The Metroid series, especially Super Metroid, has long attracted speedrunners with its high skill ceiling and openness to sequence breaking. It’s obvious that Doinksoft had the intention to attract a similar audience with the timer that appears at the bottom of the screen whenever you’re in a vehicle. There are even abilities like rocket jumping that allows you to scale greater heights in your mech, but it’s questionable how often there are opportunities to bypass obstacles to improve your time. Certainly there are some, but it seems a bit too rigid to really allow for someone to truly break the game in a beneficial way.
When it comes down to it, I did have fun with Gato Roboto, but it puts itself in an unfair position by inviting comparison to Metroid. The market for indie explore-’em-ups is already heavily saturated, and while its kitty charms will definitely attract an audience, that charm is only skin deep. It doesn’t go beyond the cat in the mech suit. Everything else is Metroid. The music, the visual design, the interconnected world, there’s nothing that makes it stand apart other than a cat.
It’s hard to recommend Gato Roboto when we live in a world where games like Cave Story and Iconoclasts exist. It took me just under three hours to complete my first playthrough, which was both pleasantly digestible and reasonable for its asking price, but it is also very forgettable.
So I guess what I’m saying is, if you go into Gato Roboto with the only expectation being “Metroid but with a cat protagonist,” you won’t likely be disappointed. But if you hope for anything beyond that, you’ll likely wind up entertained but unsatisfied.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]